In 1993, I went to Lucknow, India to receive teachings from the Advaita master H.W. L. Poonjaji, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi. Many of my friends and colleagues, including several dedicated teachers of Vipassana meditation, had preceded me to Poonjaji’s door. By the time I arrived, his fame had blossomed and his small living room bulged with seekers from around the world who had elbowed their way into his morning satsang. I found a flat square saffron cushion in the back of the room and squeezed onto it, my knees bumping my neighbors on both sides. Ceiling fans spun in a feeble attempt to cool the already rising temperatures of the still early morning, and stifling a yawn as I wiped sweat from my brow, I wondered what I was doing in this steamy room at the foot of a guru. I didn’t believe in gurus. I had discovered meditation in my early twenties, had wended my way through various practices for the next decade, and had landed squarely in the Vipassana Buddhist camp. For years I diligently attended retreats and was grateful for the outpouring of insights, albeit not entirely flattering, that occurred during the ten or twenty-one days of silence and requisite slow motion. No matter how easy or difficult the days of sitting had been, I consistently cherished the hard-won openness of heart that accompanied my return to the world, even though I knew that within days my normal life would overwhelm my senses and dispel all calm from my seemingly imperturbable mind. Still, my spiritual progress was steady and assured, and I assumed that if I kept practicing I would gradually become clearer, calmer, kinder, and wiser.
“Do nothing,” Poonjaji advised from his dais at the front of the room, his voice raspy with age, his Indian accent thick, his wool-capped head bobbing in that nod-like motion that characterizes Indians and perplexes Westerners. Exuding a seductive warmth laced with an icy, commander-in-chief sternness, Papaji (as we called him to show respect) insisted we not meditate or do yoga or fast or sit naked in the snow to awaken the mind. Then he chuckled, flashing his pearly false teeth, and the whole room burst into laughter.
Any practice one did would create a state of mind that was temporary, Papaji told us. Meditation, yoga, psychedelics, fire walking, visualizing deities, bungee jumping, and other techniques might be effective in inducing temporary states of calm, bliss, or insight, but he was not interested in fleeting conditions of the mind. What Papaji demanded we recognize was the beingness that resides at the core of existence, that is untouched by birth and death, joy or sorrow, and requires no effort to attain because there is absolutely nothing to attain. By engaging in any practice, no matter how effective, one gave substance to obstacles that did not in fact exist by reifying the notion that awakening required some kind of special activity. All one needed to do was turn awareness away from objects of perception and onto awareness itself. “See the one who is seeing,” Papaji said. “Be quiet. Be still.”
In Papaji’s presence, recognizing one’s already extant awakening was effortless if one relaxed deeply enough to simply be. Nearly everyone who visited this teacher tasted true nature—a feeling of boundless awareness that existed within us and around us regardless of what we did or did not do, a consciousness that we could see in one another’s eyes. The one who is seeing was the very same one looking back, consciousness itself. And in that moment, all of the Buddhist teachings I had been struggling to understand through the gradual accumulation of insights became strikingly clear: there is no separate self; all arising phenomena are impermanent; suffering exists until we identify not with the changing conditions of our lives but with consciousness itself, which is boundless and more intimate than our breath.
Inadvertently, Poonjaji created waves in the territory of those who espoused the theory of gradual awakening, namely, in the land of Western Buddhism. Many of my Western friends who had studied with the most famous Thai and Burmese meditation masters and had sequestered themselves repeatedly in rigorous three-month meditation retreats, began seeking out teachers who espoused the formless practice of sudden awakening.
In 1998, not long after my fourth trip to Lucknow to “be with the master,” as my friends said (words that stuck in my gullet despite my boundless reverence for Papaji), I met Wendi Adamek in a novel-writing class at the University of Iowa, and was immediately struck by her wit, talent, and demure beauty. During a dinner party one evening in her white clapboard house near campus, Wendi took me on a tour of her home. The bookshelves in her office supported the weight of a serious collection of books on Buddhism—in Chinese. This slim and bespectacled dark-haired woman in her early thirties was not only an aspiring fantasy novelist, it turned out, but also, and primarily, a scholar of medieval Chinese Buddhism. (Wendi is now an Assistant Professor of Chinese Religion at Barnard College.) In a rush of excitement, Wendi told me that she had recently been awarded a sizeable National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to conduct research on materials discovered at a remote archaeological site in China. Her enthusiasm was contagious—as her dinner party guests chirped away in the garden munching roasted corn and barbecued salmon, Wendi and I lingered in her office, and she unveiled the details of her research.
In 1900, a caretaker at the Magao Caves near the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang, in China’s Gansu Province, accidentally broke through a cave wall. To his surprise, he came upon a pile of dusty, time-worn scrolls that scholars later informed him had been concealed in the secret enclave for centuries. Wendi was most elated about a recovered eighth-century text called the Lidai fabao ji, by a radical Buddhist sect called the Bao Tang. Up to that point, it had been a “phantom work,” a work referred to in other texts of the era but never before seen. The Bao Tang embraced a formless practice known as “sudden awakening” and claimed that realization was available to everyone, laypeople and ordained, men and women, royalty and peasants alike. Wu Zhu, the sect’s founder, also claimed that awakening required no formal practice: “The dharma is separate from all contemplation practices. No-thought is precisely no-practice, no-thought is precisely no-contemplation.” In fact, Wu Zhu attested that by engaging in any formal practice one gave substance to impediments that did not in fact exist.
The teachings articulated in the Lidai fabao ji were nearly word for word what Poonjaji had uttered in his living room in Lucknow twelve hundred years after the text had been compiled; these were teachings I hadn’t received from any of my many dharma teachers during two decades of Buddhist study. Suddenly, this obscure text from eighth-century China seemed utterly relevant to the crossroads I had encountered on my own path. Should I continue to practice in the dharma hall, following my breath and noting sensations, thoughts, and feelings as they arose and passed away in an attempt to reach enlightenment, or should I give up all effort and all practices and simply rest in what I had recognized as innate Buddha-nature? Would the former deliver me where I hoped to land, and was I capable of the latter? Wendi, who most often engages in dialogue with other academics, seemed bemused by my sudden interest and did not hesitate to answer the questions I thrust upon her. Who was this character Wu Zhu, and what happened to the Bao Tang?
The sect mushroomed partially as a response to the fact that Buddhism in eighth-century China, while highly popular, had become quite formalized, thanks in part to the lavish support of the T’ang dynasty. Grand and ornate monasteries flourished throughout the empire, but ordination cost a fortune, and monks were required to conduct complex purifications, recite sutras, chant prayers for the protection of the empire, and perform daily ceremonies. Buddhism was popular among laypeople who—like practitioners throughout the world today—attended retreats and made offerings. But the practice as a whole, Wendi explained, was oriented toward ritual, purification, and the gaining of merit rather than attaining direct realization of the innate nature of mind, or Buddha-nature.
While these descriptions of T’ang-dynasty Buddhism did not precisely parallel my own experience in the centers where I had practiced, there were striking resemblances. I had practiced in my neighbor’s zendo for years, bowing and staring at the walls, reciting lineage prayers and chanting the Heart Sutra, which, while mysteriously calming, were also hauntingly opaque. I had sat in retreat after retreat in Vipassana meditation halls following my breath and noting all sensations, and had been soothed and inspired each evening as brilliant teachers delivered moving, insightful, and poetic dharma talks. But no one mentioned enlightenment. I had attended initiations, transmissions, and empowerments with highly revered Tibetan rinpoches, reciting prayers in Tibetan as the great masters wielded bells and drums with impressive dexterity and wrathful and benign deities seemed to take on a three-dimensional presence and float out of their colorful brocade frames on the walls. But no matter where I turned, enlightenment continued to be a condition that was essentially unattainable by the likes of me. At best, awakening was a state to be achieved through untold devotion, dedication, striving, prostrations, prayers, and endless hours on the zafu that would gradually result, if you were among the karmically blessed, in perhaps delivering you a bit closer to the cherished but unutterable outcome.
Beginning in 730 C.E., offshoot movements arose in China attacking the establishment and claiming that institutionalized Buddhism, in the words of Wendi, “nurtured the illusion that awakening was a condition to be achieved rather than one’s own inherent reality.” The most famous movement became known as the Southern School of Ch’an (which later flourished in Japan as Zen), whose hallmark was the teaching of sudden awakening, the direct realization of one’s innate awakening independent of any affiliation with a government-supported monastery or any particular ritual or practice. The Bao Tang claimed allegiance to the Southern School, and the Lidai fabao ji, written by anonymous members of the sect, gained notoriety because of the clarity of its nondual teachings.
During an era when laywomen occupied the lowest rung of an entrenched hierarchical spiritual system, the Bao Tang welcomed them into its fold. Within the Lidai fabao ji are the only full-fledged accounts in any of the early Ch’an texts of women as disciples of Ch’an. This and other clues in the literary style have led Wendi to wonder if Wu Zhu’s female disciples may have had a hand in the actual writing of the Lidai fabao ji. Their authorship would be one possible explanation for the text’s anonymous attribution; nearly all other texts of this era were attributed to specific authors.
One of the most remarkable stories in the Lidai fabao ji is that of the daughter of a Grand Councillor who came to Wu Zhu for teachings:
She was quick-witted and clever, extensively learned and knowledgeable, and when asked a question she was never without an answer. She came to pay obeisance to the Venerable [Wu Zhu]. The Venerable saw that she was obdurate and determined on chastity and he preached the Dharma for her.
“This Dharma is not caused and conditioned, is neither false nor not false. . . . The Dharma is beyond eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. . . . No-thought is precisely no-body, no-thought is precisely no-mind. No-thought is precisely no-preciousness, no-thought is precisely no-worthlessness. No-thought is precisely no-high, no-thought is precisely no-low. At the time of true no-thought, no-thought itself is not.”
Upon hearing Wu Zhu’s teaching, the Grand Councillor’s daughter gains instant awakening, joins her hands together and “weeps grievously, a rain of tears.” Wu Zhu gives her the dharma name Lian Jian Xing (Complete Seeing Nature) and she tonsures herself, dons robes, and goes on to become renowned as “a leader amongst nuns.”
Imagine an eighth-century Chinese woman so empowered by her experience of awakening that she has the confidence to disregard the complex and expensive bureaucratic process of ordination and proclaim herself a nun in flagrant defiance of the prevailing spiritual institutions. Knowing of this woman in the past who broke away from the bureaucratized forms of religion to teach from the authority of her own awakening has had a profound impact on me. If Lian Jian Xing could do this, might I? My female colleagues are becoming more and more adamant about parity in contemporary Western Buddhist institutions as, despite the sincere efforts of some organizations to divest the tradition of historical patriarchal values, we continue to see more men in leadership and teaching roles than women. Until this changes, the primary effect of this nun’s story will be reassurance that true spiritual authority lies within the heart of my own religious experience and not necessarily in the institutions that claim such authority.
During long Vipassana retreats, the thought had often crossed my mind that had women risen to power in historical Buddhist hierarchies, they would have created a different style of practice—something less harsh and more nurturing, something that emphasized both ease of being and relatedness among the practitioners, something more celebratory of embodied life. I imagined instead of not making eye contact, one would exchange glances full of lovingkindness with one’s meditation colleagues. I imagined shoulder rubs, foot massages, refreshing the skin with petal-infused mists, and sharing jugs of freshly made cucumber water. Thinking of Lian Xiang Jian, I surmised that there must have been thousands of courageous and spiritually illuminated women in the past, women we do not hear about who at particular moments in history emerged as leaders and who embraced forms of practice that emphasized peacefulness, relatedness, and ease.
These fantasies quickly came undone as Wendi told me about the next phase of her research, a translation of the inscriptions left on cave walls by the nuns of Baoshan, in the Yunnan Province of China. In the twelfth century, these women practiced an extreme form of asceticism, including severe fasting, or what scholars today call “holy anorexia.” Clearly, women can be drawn to practices that are characterized by self-affliction as well as those characterized by ease and noneffort. So where does this leave me? Am I an adherent of Advaita and the notion of Sudden Awakening, or am I a Buddhist who practices Vipassana on the zafu, with the occasional foray into Dzogchen retreats? Must we be adherents of only one school to be authentic in our practice and our devotion, or can we straddle however many traditions we find inspiring and helpful?
Last winter, I attended a ten-day Vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California. For the first few days, I followed the instructions with a quiet and obedient commitment despite Poonjaji’s gruff voice echoing in my mind, “Do not meditate.” As my mind calmed and my body became more comfortable with the long hours of stillness, I abandoned the rigorous noting of sensations, thoughts, and feelings to the most minute of details; instead I allowed myself to open into a spacious awareness where all these came and went of their own accord, in their own rhythm, and I watched, felt, heard, and saw in an easy, allowing way. When I felt the urge, I did not walk in slow motion steps noting the lifting, rising, and falling of one foot and then the other; instead I strode up the hill under the most blazing of winter-blue skies until, far beyond the earshot of fellow yogis, I sang out loud and danced in the wind. And when such activities led to a vagueness of mental acuity and a spaced-out drowsiness accompanied my return to the zafu, I went back to noting breath, thoughts, and sensations until my attention became stabilized enough to allow an openness of mind to flourish once again. I did not keep my antics secret from my teachers, nor did they discourage me. Different students respond to different styles of practice, they said. At a certain point you have a toolbox full of techniques, and you pull out what you need at any given moment. Awakening is the point, not methodology.
I was happy to be back in the dharma hall, a place I had come to love beyond measure during all my years of practice. It was here that I felt most safe, not only from a world that was characterized by rampant violence, glorified greed, and a global politic severed from truth-telling—but also from the confusion of my own mind. It was here that I was able to experience the deepest clarity of heart and mind. It was here that I dissolved into the grief that had gone ungrieved, here that my heart broke open enough to let everyone in, even those I had ousted, here that I found myself most vulnerable and most alive. I have come to realize that despite the fact that the spiritual teachers whom I have had the good fortune to encounter in this lifetime can appear to be in conflict about the methodologies that foster awakening, my own experiences form an unbroken continuum. Wisdom does accumulate—not in a linear arithmetic progression but in a complex, dynamic system. Each understanding sheds light upon the others in an interactive living process. Insights that seem unassailable may suddenly meet passionate doubt, all clarity shattered at the very moment it is most needed. Then, just as suddenly, wisdom will resurface, stronger for having vanished, wisdom that now knows of its own disintegration.
At the core of Buddhist teaching is the awakened mind—the knowing that we are not this body but consciousness itself, a boundless, luminous, loving, peaceful, intelligent presence. I have seen this in one way or another over and over again. Having tasted and glimpsed and savored such knowing, now what?
Now, I go on retreat when I am able. Poonjaji did say not to meditate, but he also said, “Be quiet. Be still.”
Here, perhaps, lies the heart of the quest. Here, perhaps, is the most repeated guidance in all of Buddhist practice. Here, perhaps, is the place where all traditions come together without conflict. Be quiet, be still. Let the mind rest. Discover who you really are.
“In the moment of no-thought, no-thought itself is not,” said Wu Zhu.
Be quiet. Be still.
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